I didn’t realize it at the time, but I tweeted at my future self this weekend.

As I finished a late breakfast at a restaurant where I’ve become a regular customer (and as much as I wish I could tell you its name, I cannot. The staff know me and my favorite dishes, but not what I do for a living), I took a few final sips of coffee and let myself daydream about the business’s future. With a jolt, I sat upright, imagining an unhappy future timeline where the ovens power down and the restaurant closes its doors forever. The thought alone made me feel queasy.

So I tweeted something sentimental yet heartfelt about the cruel inconstancy of the food world, ending with a pledge of unilateral commitment. “I need this place,” I confessed.

This morning, as I sipped another cup of coffee and paged through my photos of a recent meal at Portland’s Back Bay Grill, I caught glimpses of possible future versions of myself. There they sat — diners (mostly men) of a certain age fresh from their taxis (Uber and Lyft are a digital bridge too far), their smartphone flashes flickering over their menus like lighters held aloft at a rock concert — scanning the night’s dinner options even though, as one chuckled to his familiar server, “I like to look, but you and I already both know what I’m going to order, don’t we?”

Across four two-tops, I witnessed the same scene play out over and over. And, finishing the last of my coffee today, it hit me: They’re just like me: They need this place.

“People do come here on a routine basis, and continuity is important to us,” said Larry Matthews, Back Bay Grill’s owner and executive chef. “I sometimes say it takes two or three times coming here to really understand the place. That’s when we can start to remember the cocktail you like and where you want to sit. The chance to take care of people maybe over several years is what we all enjoy here. I think that’s why it turns into a favorite place for a lot of people.”

If you’ve never eaten at Back Bay Grill, you should know: It’s an old-school, white-tablecloth restaurant that looks very much like it did when former owner Steve Quatrucci (now the proprietor of Monte’s Fine Foods) opened the doors for the first time in 1987. The beige walls, wire-suspended track lighting and desaturated mural recall the restaurant’s late ’80s/early-’90s youth. Every meal is a trip through a time machine that navigates cosmic wormholes with a GPS tuned to the frequencies of  “A Different World” and The Bangles.

Yet, as dated as the dining room is — its scuffed and gnawed-looking banquettes and Golden Girls-style scones are gasping for a refresh —Back Bay Grill turns other aspects of the retro feel into an asset, largely through service. I have eaten in no other Maine restaurant where staffers unfailingly preface every question with “May I…” and go to great pains to avoid deploying sloppy, faux-solicitous service tropes like, “How are the first bites tasting?” and “Are we still working on that?” Instead, they do things the old-fashioned way: They pay attention.

The kitchen is much the same, both in its deliberate, understated approach to plating, as well as in the mainly French-and-Italian influences that — while perhaps not trendy in 2020 — pilot the menu along a well-traveled flight path to success. Why fix what is so magnificently not broken?

Lavender-marinated duck breast with potato gnocchi, duck jus, fennel confit and Swiss chard. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Indeed, some dishes, like the lavender-marinated duck breast ($36) have been on the menu since Matthews began cooking at Back Bay Grill in 1997. Served with pan-seared, French-style chive-and-lemon gnocchi, the breast is crisp-skinned, infused with the aroma of red wine and thyme (yet little lavender), and extraordinarily juicy. Five years ago, in a five-star review, this paper’s critic named the duck as one of his favorite dishes at Back Bay Grill. In terms of the sheer quality of the breast, I agree enthusiastically.

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Yet propped alongside the breast is a seared, square-cut block of juniper-and-peppercorn-spiced duck leg confit. It’s every bit as good as the breast, yet with no garnish of its own and no clear relationship to the gnocchi or underlying sautéed chard, it seems like a stowaway on the plate. If the intention is, as Matthews later confirmed to me, to present duck “two ways,” the confit deserves full co-star status and a counterbalancing accompaniment of its own.

It should tell you all you need to know that this, along with a gritty, underheated Swiss meringue on that evening’s mousse-like chocolate marquise — a long slice of dense, bittersweet cake plated like a cruise ship sailing through an archipelago of crushed pistachio and crème anglaise dots ($10) — were the only miscues of my recent visit.

The rest of the meal was a stunner, from wobbly Casco Bay scallops, seared hard and lowered into a tidal pool of cubed, saffron-tinted potatoes, glistening brown beech mushrooms and translucent crème-fraiche-and-leek broth ($37), to a tangle of arugula greens dribbling pomegranate vinaigrette dressing onto wedges of yielding, Riesling-poached pears and savory Vermont chevre mousse ($12).

“For that combination, you’ll want something light, but not too bright,” my server suggested. “Maybe a glass of the Central Coast pinot noir we have by the glass?” It was a wise selection, and at $10 a glass, a reasonably priced one for a restaurant whose entrees can drift north of $40.

Unexpectedly affordable wine is one of Back Bay Grill’s secret charms. Sure, the broad, appealingly eclectic list includes special-occasion Chateauneuf-de-Papes and Barolos, the sort of splurge-worthy bottles you’d expect from a white tablecloth restaurant. But side-by-side with them sit dozens of sub-$40 options, including several under the almost unheard-of $30 mark. Nostalgic wine pricing might be the most appealing of Back Bay Grill’s many callbacks to the past.

Maine crab cake with chili-lime aioli, pickled shallots and arugula. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Which is not to say that Matthews and his team don’t keep up with what’s happening in the culinary world. They do, although they introduce new ingredients and techniques gently, in almost homeopathic quantities. Take the crunchy Maine crab cake, topped with pickled shallots and draped with two sweet pea tendrils. To achieve a shattering crunch, Matthews breads the cake in Japanese-style panko breadcrumbs, an ingredient that began to find an audience in the U.S. just over a decade ago. Then he pushes further — almost imperceptibly — via an aioli he fortifies with lime juice and chili.

I like to imagine that first dinner service 10 years ago, when he introduced the dish to the menu, the restaurant’s regulars casting suspicious, uncertain glances at the menu, then finding themselves unable to complain. But if they had, Matthews would have been prepared.

Bartender Allison Fowler delivers appetizers at Back Bay Grill. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“We have so many regular guests here, I can use the guests’ reactions to figure out if something is working or not. I think it’s because we have such a loyal clientele, we get a true read on stuff. They trust us enough to try something and understand that we really do want feedback from them. And they tell us.”

I understand why. Those regulars are after a good meal, no doubt. But they’re also deeply invested in Back Bay Grill’s continued success. Their candor is an expression of something meaningful: They need this place. We all do.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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